Last week I was called on to assist in making a call on one of our military families. The son had died while serving at a base on the East Coast. The family lives here on the West Coast and needed to be officially notified. This is done by what we call a CACO Team. CACO is the acronym for Casualty Assistance Calls Officer. This team consists of a naval officer or a senior enlisted person who is trained in the process of dealing with all the matters surrounding the death of a military member, and a chaplain.
The common misperception is that families are notified by a telephone call when their loved one in the military has died or has been killed. During WWII the means of notifying families was with a telegram (remember those?). This was still the means used through Korea and early Vietnam. Then we got smart and began an official program where families are notified in person by uniformed personnel sent to the home of the next of kin. This is a face-to-face meeting with the family. With today's rapid means of communication (e-mail, cell phones, etc) families can find out unofficially by well-meaning military friends of the deceased, so it is expedient that the families be notified as quickly as possible through official channels. This way we can answer the many questions a family has about their loved one.
So after being notified we had a CACO, I put on my "summer whites" uniform and headed north to hook up with the CACO officer, a Navy Chief, in Sacramento. Since I was in desperate need of a haircut, I swung into downtown Ripon to see if I could have my locks shorn quickly. I knew it was unlikely, but I figured it was worth a try. Both barbershops on Main Street were full. I decided to jump on the freeway, figuring to stop along the way. I pulled into Lodi (as in "Stuck in Lodi Again"). I found a barbershop not far from the freeway, so walked in. There was one person having a haircut, and a couple of lady barbers with no customers. Perfect! A few minutes later another man came in for a haircut and was seated next to me. He saw my uniform and commented that he'd served in the Navy in the late '50s. We enjoyed chatting about our different experiences in the Navy. I walked to the register to pay, only to have the lady barber tell me it was being paid for by the man I'd been talking with. I looked over at him seated in the chair and said "Thank you." He nodded, and I left.
Once in Sacramento, I stopped at a Burger King where I was to meet the Chief. Two men were seated near where I was. One man was wearing a Polo shirt with the California Highway Patrol logo on the left breast. He said, "Excuse me. I just want to say, 'Thanks for your service.'" I shook their hand and said, "You're welcome." Back out in the parking lot, I had several more people walk by and say, "Thank you." One man stopped next to me before exiting the parking lot. He just wanted to tell me of his father's service in Vietnam, something he was obviously very proud of. Before driving off, he shook my hand, and said, "Thank you."
Later, the Chief and I stopped for lunch at Carl's, Jr. Wearing the summer white uniform really stands out, so the Chief and I took seats at the back of the diner. Didn't matter. One man walked back to shake our hand and said, "I didn't want you to get away before I had a chance to say, 'Thanks for your service.'"
This was quite an experience for us. Both the Chief and I are Vietnam Vets. Being from that era and having fought in that war, we're never sure what to expect when we encounter civilians. It was most heartwarming!
The next day I was back at my church in Ripon in my normal pastor's attire: white shirt, sport coat, and tie. While I was out running some errands I knew my car needed a bath, so I drove into a car wash in Modesto. There was a guy/gal team prepping all the cars before they rolled through the enclosed washer. As they scrubbed my car before sending me on in, the gal told her male workmate that he should take good care of me because I was a Marine Officer. He asked her how she knew that. She pointed to the decal on my windshield that says "Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base," and has a blue strip signifying that the owner is an officer. I asked her if she had served. She said she'd spent four years in the Navy. I then explained that I was indeed an officer, but that I was in the Navy, serving with the Marines. She smiled in understanding, so as I was rolling up the window, she said, "Thanks. You take care, sir."
It's hard for me to know what to say at this point. Total strangers who see the uniform make an effort to express their appreciation. It would seem that the uniform is a symbol of all that is good and decent about America. This is a fact that the enemies of freedom simply do not understand. The men and women who wear this uniform, be it Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, or Coast Guard, do so because they are proud to serve and defend the American people. Since 9-11, no one has joined the armed forces to get college money. They joined to fight terrorists threatening the security and very existence of our nation.
So, on behalf of all who serve, let me say, "Thank you," for all your "Thank yous." It is an honor to serve you.